The Perils of Nanotech, Part 2: Reining In Runaway Research

Part 1 of this series looked at advances in nanotechnology and the threats it presents.

Advances in nanotechnology have given flight to some seemingly fanciful, and also alarming, projections and fictional scenarios. Yet the applications of nanotech are so diverse and far-reaching that scientists agree that the widespread ability to manipulate matter on the nano scale — one-billionth of a meter — opens up possibilities to completely transform every sector of the world’s industrial, manufacturing and economic systems.

Nanoengineered materials exhibit very different properties than their larger-scale counterparts, and that’s what makes them so intriguing to researchers — as well as what makes their potential uses so profound and far-ranging. When it comes to protecting environmental safety, a glaring lack of research, standards and regulatory oversight concerns scientists and public interests groups most.

“The early warning signs surrounding nanotoxicity are serious and warrant a precautionary approach to the commercialization of all products containing nanomaterials,” Ian Illuminato, spokesperson for Friends of the Earth U.S. and Australia, told TechNewsWorld.

“Friends of the Earth believes there should be a moratorium on the further commercial release of products that contain engineered nanomaterials, and the withdrawal of such products currently on the market until adequate public, peer-reviewed safety studies have been completed and adequate regulations have been put in place to protect the general public, the workers manufacturing these products and the environmental systems in which waste products will be released.”

The National Nanotechnology Initiative

The Executive Office of the President’s National Science and Technology Council (NTSC) subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology, as part of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), last month laid out a framework to guide and inform government agency efforts, prioritize research and foster programs that aim to advance knowledge and support decision making for the responsible development of nanotechnology.

Agency funding of research to develop sound and effective risk assessment and risk management of nanoscale materials and products is increasing faster than any other component of NNI’s research, the authors of the NTSC’s national “Strategy for Nanotechnology-Related Environmental, Health, and Safety Research” paper noted.

NNI has invested some US$254 million to conduct research into environmental, health and safety aspects of nanomaterials between 2005 — the first year such figures are available — and requests included in the 2009 budget. The President’s fiscal 2009 budget requests a further $76 million in research funds directly related to investigating and addressing the potential risks to health and environment nanotechnology poses, double the amount spent in 2006. Not included in this amount is funding for instrumentation and metrology research related to “fundamental biological interactions upon exposure to nanomaterials — all of which are also important to advancing understanding of nano-EHS issues,” according to the report.

Nano TiO2

Despite all the research NNI has funded, “no national regulations anywhere in the world take into account the size-dependent property changes of nano-scale materials,” maintains the ETC Group’s Kathy Jo Wetter.

“I’ll give just one example of the regulatory issues — of titanium dioxide in foods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved TiO2 as a food color additive in 1966 with the stipulation that the additive was ‘not to exceed 1 percent by weight.’ Micron-sized particles of TiO2 are white in color and can be added to icings on cookies and cakes. The FDA approved TiO2 as a ‘food contact substance’ as well, meaning that it’s safe to incorporate it into food packaging. TiO2 is now being formulated at the nano-scale and the transparent particles are being used in clear plastic food wraps for UV protection.”

Having already been approved as a food contact substance, the nano-scale production and use of titanium oxide in packaging will not trigger further regulatory scrutiny, Wetter continued. “This is also true for nano-TiO2’s use as a food additive, which is relevant because companies are exploring the use of nano-scale TiO2 in foods. Foods are being coated with nano-scale titanium dioxide to keep out moisture and oxygen. The percent-by-weight limits set back in the 1960s aren’t relevant to today’s nano-scale formulations since tiny amounts can produce large effects.”

Hitting the Brakes

The use of nano-scale titanium dioxide in food is just one example, however. “Market analysts predict that the nanotech market for food and food packaging could be $20 billion by 2010. ETC Group has been told that every major food corporation has a nanotech R&D program or is looking to develop one,” Wetter told TechNewsWorld.

“Top scientists around the world have called out against the commercialization of nanotechnology until necessary steps are taken to make this technology safe for humans and the environment. Leading public interest group experts have pleaded with government and industry to slow down this irresponsible and risky wheel of nano-production, but to date those in power have yet to even flirt with the idea of allowing the public and concerned scientist to collaborate and engage in meaningful processes towards the responsible development of nanotech,” added FoE’s Illuminato.

“EPA and FDA do ask for comments and input from a wide group of stakeholders on the responsible development of nano, though contributions from concerned NGOs and scientists are usually minimally seen in final government decision making.

“It’s sad to say, but we don’t see much at all going forward in terms of government regulatory efforts to ensure that applications and uses of nanotech do not threaten human and environmental health. Here in the United States, we can safely say that our government is owned by big corporations. Nano could make some big bucks for this country and others at the expense of human and environmental health; be assured that our regulators have no issue in approving these risky and threatening technologies for human use, as long as monetary gains are envisioned.”

The Federal Toxics Release Inventory

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) has been a leader when it comes to delving into and informing government and the public about the potential risks and threats posed by nanotechnology applications.

PEN on Feb. 26 released a landmark legal analysis that finds the federal Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) reporting statute can be applied to nanomaterials. Before this can happen in most cases more toxicological data has to be obtained to better understand the potential health and environmental effects of nanomaterials, however.

The research, conducted by two experts in environmental law, found that federal authorities “may need to be amended to address reporting thresholds that may not apply effectively to nanomaterials because of their unique characteristics,” according to a media release.

“There needs to be development of additional toxicological data on nanomaterials, but in theory TRI could be applied to nanomaterials. The key question is whether EPA will make any determinations about whether particular nanomaterials constitute toxic chemicals,” Linda Breggin, senior attorney at the Environmental Law Institute and an author of the analysis.

The PEN analysis points out that although currently proposed legislation “does not specifically address nanomaterials, a public dialogue about the benefits and costs of TRI is under way that could include discussion of the program’s application to nanomaterials.”

The city of Berkeley, Calif., in 2006 adopted a disclosure ordinance that requires nanomaterial manufacturers to disclose the known risks of their products. Cambridge, Mass., is considering a similar ordinance, and other local governments may follow suit, according to PEN.

“If Cambridge passes an ordinance similar to Berkeley’s, who knows how many other cities or other municipalities will follow?” PEN Director David Rejeski stated in a media release. “Soon we could have a patchwork of cities across the country with nanotech disclosure ordinances, which is why environmental law experts should take the time now to make the decision as to whether TRI is a tool that can be used at the federal level to disclose nanomaterials’ potential risks.”

The Perils of Nanotech, Part 1: Dancing in the Dark

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